Food allergy is when your immune system reacts to a particular food. This causes inflammation of the body’s tissues, which in some cases can be life threatening. It should not be confused with food intolerance, which is completely different. Food intolerance is not caused by the immune system. Symptoms are usually limited to the digestive system (vomiting, diarrhoea) and are rarely life-threatening.
A lot of people avoid eating certain foods because they mistakenly believe they are allergic to them. Actual food allergy is rare and tends to run in families. Only 5 to 8 in 100 infants and 1 to 2 in 100 adults have a food allergy. You are more at risk if you or any family members have other allergic diseases, such as eczema, asthma and hay fever.
You develop an allergy when your immune system overreacts to foreign proteins and produces antibodies that attack the body's own tissues. The foreign protein that causes the reaction is known as an allergen. In food allergy, a particular type of food is the allergen. A food allergy is a type 1 allergy. In this type of allergy, the immune system produces antibodies called IgE-antibody response to the allergen. The body only produces IgE after exposure to the allergen. This means your body will produce more IgE the next time you eat that food. If enough of this antibody is produced, it will cause symptoms, such as rash and swelling.
You can be allergic to all kinds of food, but reactions to the following are most common: shellfish, milk, fish, soya beans, wheat, eggs, peanuts, fruit and vegetables, tree nuts - such as walnuts, brazil nuts, almonds and pistachios.
Sometimes a food can be exposed to other allergens and they can cause your body to react to the food. This is known as a "cross- reaction". Birch pollen cross-reacts with: hazelnut, walnut, almond and other nuts; apple, pear, cherry, plum and kiwi; potato peel, tomato and carrot; grass cross-reacts with beans and green peas.
Allergic reactions vary a lot and can begin immediately after you eat the food or start several hours later. The symptoms below are typical of food allergy:
swollen lips, face or throat; itchy sensation in the mouth and lips; vomiting, stomach cramp and diarrhoea; headache, fatigue and irritability, hay fever, asthma; rash, nettle rash and pre-existing eczema may get worse.
Once you have become sensitised to a food, your immune system produces more antibodies every time you eat that food. This means symptoms that are mild one day can be serious the next. If you have a food allergy, you should never put yourself at risk of a reaction to make life easier when eating out. In rare cases, eating even a tiny amount of the food can cause anaphylactic shock. This is a life-threatening reaction by the immune system that causes the airways to narrow and heart to malfunction. It needs immediate treatment with adrenaline. The diagnosis of allergy may be based on the blood test and food elimination.
A prick-test of the allergen on your skin or a blood test may be useful to eliminate allergies. Unfortunately, they often show reactions that have no practical significance. For this reason, allergy testing should be performed and evaluated by experts. Test kits that are available in health food shops and over the internet are not reliable indicators of allergy.
Two weeks on a normal varied diet while keeping a detailed diary of everything eaten and any reactions. If you have a reaction, that food should be avoided. If your symptoms get considerably better, the next step is to try an open provocation by deliberately eating the food that may be causing your problems. This is to eliminate any psychological cause for a reaction and is called a "challenge test". This is normally carried out in a supervised hospital environment for safety reasons. This is the usual procedure to obtain a diagnosis of food allergy.
The most important treatment is to stop eating the food that triggers your allergy. Medical treatment can ease symptoms but will not cure the disease. Typically, antihistamines will relieve the itching, but they are unlikely to prevent allergic symptoms.
Most people with food allergy are able to live a normal life with only a few restrictions in their diet. Complications are rare and include the following: anaemia, difficult breathing, asthma and anaphylactic shock.